BY DANIEL D. CLARK
Former WSBA President and Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst once said to a group of students from marginalized and traditionally underrepresented communities, “If you hit a wall, find a door. And if there are no doors, find what windows are open.” As someone with a lifetime disability of a stuttering communication speech disorder, which impacts my ability to fluently speak in public and sometimes during conversations, these words of wisdom from her really resonate with me. I likely wouldn’t have chosen to try to serve as our current WSBA president but for Mary’s encouragement and mentoring.
As I write this column, it is the one-year anniversary of Mary’s passing, and it is my honor to dedicate this President’s Corner to her life, legacy, and many important teachings. In the six-plus years that I’ve had the honor of serving on the Board of Governors, one of the most valuable and amazing things I’ve gotten to experience was meeting, learning from, and becoming friends with Mary.
I know countless WSBA members share my feelings about her. Mary commanded respect, but at the same time was so down to earth, kind, and real. She would insist that you call her Mary rather than Chief Justice Fairhurst or Your Honor. She was Mary; I’m Dan, and so on. I watched her go out of her way to make complete strangers feel welcomed, appreciated, and valued. Mary treated everyone that way. She stressed that it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable. It was obvious in my interactions with her that she truly cared about our Bar Association, the Board of Governors, and ensuring that we carry out our mission.
Justice Debra L. Stephens said upon Mary’s death:
Mary was the most authentic, loving person I have ever known. She truly made no distinction between her work life and her home life in terms of values and personal philosophy—she was a friend to everyone she met.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said upon Mary’s death:
She could fill me with hope when I was down, compassion when I was angry, appreciation for a different point of view when I was stubborn, and connection with community when I was alone.
Every other justice who served with Mary on the Washington Supreme Court had extremely complimentary things to say about her as a colleague and a friend. With these statements I totally agree.
Mary was in and out of remission with cancer for close to 14 years. Despite this, she never lost her positive attitude, nor did I ever see her waiver from her commitment to improving the legal profession. She died on Dec. 28, 2021, surrounded by her siblings, family, and long-term companion, Bob Douglas, whom she often referred to as her “sweetheart.” It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since she left us.
Mary’s Commitment to Serving the Public and Knowing Each Person She Served
One of the most amazing things to me about Mary is that she had so many tremendous accomplishments during her career and life. She spent her legal career in public service. She served as a governor on the Board of Governors, as WSBA treasurer, and as the first WSBA president to be a full-time government attorney (I’m only the second). At the time, she was the youngest WSBA president ever to have served and only the second woman to serve as WSBA president. Justice Barbara Madsen said of Mary:
Mary believed in public service, but she believed more in knowing each person she served. For Mary, service had names and faces. She believed in goodness, beauty, purpose, and love. Life has been better for a lot of people because Mary cared about them.
Mary spent 16 years as an assistant attorney general with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office prior to being elected to the Washington Supreme Court in 2002 and being named chief justice on Jan. 9, 2017. She began her legal career as a judicial clerk for the Washington Supreme Court and ultimately rose to its highest position.
Throughout Mary’s legal career, she focused her work on equity and inclusion to expand opportunities for women and people from historically underrepresented communities in the legal profession and to ensure access to justice for all Washingtonians. Current Washington Governor and WSBA member Jay Inslee said of Mary upon her death:
She was a talented legal mind; a wonderful, thoughtful person; and a dedicated public servant. Mary was deeply committed to her community and was always trying to find ways to support those most in need.
She will be remembered for her generosity, compassion, and courage. Mary championed marriage equality and stood firm against the death penalty.
Mary led on access to justice for low-income individuals and families, enhanced opportunities for women and people of color in the legal profession, and worked to increase public legal education for children and young people.
Mary served as president of Washington Women Lawyers as well as on its state board. She also served on the Washington Supreme Court’s Gender and Justice Commission and on several committees of the Access to Justice Board. Some of Mary’s well-earned awards and accomplishments include: the Washington Women Lawyers’ President’s Award, the Betty B. Fletcher Judge of the Year Award, and the Council for Public Legal Education’s 2011 Judge William Nevins Award for distinguished service in
public legal education. I could go on and on and on.
Mary also dedicated thousands of hours to the WSBA. She served on and led many WSBA committees, work groups, task forces, and processes, including the 2019 WSBA Bar Structure Work Group, which examined potential changes to the structure of the WSBA. I was one of the members of that work group, and I watched as Mary courageously served as chair despite having cancer and receiving ongoing chemotherapy treatment during that time. This is one of many things I will never forget about Mary.
A couple of months ago, in a prior President’s Corner, I mentioned Mary’s starfish story in connection with access to justice and making a difference to one person by your actions. In addition to the starfish story, Mary often used the metaphor of a pebble tossed into a pond. The impact on the surface creates circles radiating out in all directions:
If you are mad, the circles go out mad, mad, mad. So why not put out positive circles? Why not put out happy? Why not put out loving and caring and gratitude? Because you have a choice, you get to decide—every day, every moment—how you’re going to show up in the world. How you show up makes a difference for good or for bad. I choose good.
These are wise words from Mary. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always follow them, but I think I, and all of us, should try to. We all have a choice in how we act and react to things, how we zealously serve our clients, and how we help ensure the integrity of and respect for the rule of law in our state and great nation.
Mary’s Lasting Legacy
Mary received WSBA’s highest honor in 2011, the WSBA Apex Award of Merit. After her death, the Board of Governors unanimously voted to rename this award the Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst Award of Merit. This is something I was incredibly proud to be a part of, and it means a tremendous amount to me that we have appropriately renamed the WSBA’s highest honor after Mary.
I still have a bracelet that Mary gave me. It says, “Believe in Miracles.” The statement on the bracelet makes me think of her—how she would handle a situation, how she would react or act.
In closing, I miss Mary. I know she would tell me not to miss her or be sad that she’s gone, but to honor her wisdom and legacy. I’ve tried to do that this year as WSBA president and will continue to try to do that the rest of my legal career. I’ll leave you with what WSBA APR Rule 9 licensed legal intern Sarah Matheny wrote about Mary the day she died. Sarah perfectly sums up what I, and I think almost everyone who knew and loved Mary, feel about her:
This bright light in the world; trailblazer; friend; mentor and hero has passed into the beautiful gates of Heaven. She has been a mentor, friend, and pen pal; and the world and legal profession will be a bit dimmer without her optimism, steadfast positivity, bright shining light and beautiful example of humanity. Mary Fairhurst touched countless lives in her time here with us and I am absolutely a better person to have known her. We love you Mary, till we meet again one day.